A riot broke out during a game in Mexico against its Olympic team and spectators threw pesos the size of silver dollars before coach Hank Vaughn pulled the Goodyear Wingfoots off the court.
During a 1962 State Department-sponsored trip, Filipino President Diosdado Macapagal was so despondent over his Olympic team’s loss to the Wingfoots that he didn’t attend a polo club gala in their honor the following night.
With three games that same year in Laos, Wingfoot Terry Deems quickly learned “the Laotian people would foul you, then bow and apologize.”
As the Wingfoots celebrate the 100th anniversary of the industrial league basketball team that was a forerunner of the ABA and NBA with a reunion in Akron this weekend, former players cherish the chance they had to serve as ambassadors for the United States, Akron and Goodyear as they traveled the world.
A 1967 journey to Italy included a meeting with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican. They visited with the Shah of Iran’s son, Prince Reva, on another.
The Wingfoots competed through the 1970 season and their most memorable trip was the two-month excursion in 1962 that featured 28 games in eight countries — Japan, Taiwan (then Formosa), the Philippines, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The Wingfoots put on clinics and played against the countries’ best talent. In the Philippines, the contests were held in Araneta Coliseum, the site of the 1975 “Thrilla in Manila” heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
“[John F.] Kennedy was president, Dean Rusk was secretary of state. The State Department really treated us well … we had their attention, not just from basketball,” Deems, 81, of North Canton, said during a recent luncheon gathering at Spaghetti Warehouse. “We were playing with the USA logo, which was quite an honor.”
Deems’ recollections of that trek are vivid, including how they were told to change into their travel uniforms on the plane because they were going straight to meet Macapagal.
“They told us, ‘Keep your mouth shut and get your picture taken,’ so we did. But boy, he didn’t,” recalled Deems, who worked 41 years at Goodyear in 15 different jobs, mainly in human resources. “He had a press conference and he was bragging about their Olympic team and the big game was going to be Sunday and there was going to be 20,000 people there and they were going to beat us. We weren’t very happy about that.”
Deems said the leader of the Philippine team was Carlos Loyzaga, their country’s version of Michael Jordan who would have been “the Dirk Nowitzki of his day,” and they had a couple others to complement him. A 6-foot-3 player nicknamed “The Big Difference,” Loyzaga helped lead the Philippines to a seventh-place finish in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
“We won in a close game and it wasn’t real friendly competition; it was a rough game,” Deems said. “We really had to work hard to beat them.
“The next night they had a big party for us at the Manila polo club with 400 people there and [the president] didn’t show up. Everybody else did, senators and ambassadors.”
It was the early days of jet travel and the Wingfoots were flying on what Deems remembered as a four-engine DC-8, which required a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska, on the way out and a couple days in Hawaii on the way back. The trip was approved by then-Goodyear board chairman E.J. Thomas, a basketball enthusiast.
“We wore USA jerseys, but they let us wear our Goodyear warmups. So every country we went into we were met by the State Department and the local Goodyear [executives] because we had a presence in most of those countries,” Deems said. “We’re a bunch of 25-year-old kids. We were supposed to be [ambassadors], but completely untrained and unequipped for the job. Fortunately, we didn’t have any major incidents, although in that game in the Philippines there were some technical fouls and a couple guys might have gotten thrown out.”
Deems said a game in Rangoon, Burma, was played in a hot gym that had walls and a ceiling, but also an “empty space” because there was no air conditioning.
“You’d get a little bit of windage on your shots once in a while,” he said.
That was not the worst the Wingfoots endured.
Randy Berentz, 76, of Green, recalled a game in Puerto Rico played in the misting rain on a plywood court erected on a baseball diamond.
“They were throwing rosin trying to soak it up, sweeping it off. I couldn’t believe it,” said Berentz, a former Barberton High School teacher who now referees and assigns officials for varsity basketball and volleyball games. “It got into my head, I couldn’t play outside in the rain.”
Berentz said it didn’t affect Hunter Beckman, a 1965 Wingfoot who now lives in Tucson, Ariz.
“He could shoot a wet bar of soap and it would still go in,” Berentz said.
Riot in Mexico
John Jamerson, 75, of Stow, remembered the night that a riot broke out against the Mexican Olympic team during a 1970 game in Mexico City.
“This Mexican player hit Joe Pangrazio in the back of the head. I happened to get the rebound and throw it out and I was behind Joe and I saw the guy hit him. Joe turned around, cold-cocked him,” said Jamerson, who coached at Field High School for 30 years. “They were throwing pesos, they’re like our silver dollars. There were about 7,000 people there. Hank [Vaughn] took us off the floor for 15, 20 minutes and had the crowd calm down. We won the game.
“We played ‘em three days in a row; we beat ‘em twice. The third day they were serving us tequila at lunch. We weren’t drunk or anything … but it had a little bit of a bearing on the game, you were just kinda going through the paces. They won that one by a few points.”
Darrell Whitford, 80, of Copley, said the Wingfoots also put on exhibitions in the United States, including one at the Goodyear plant in Logan, Ohio, that took place on a stage no bigger than a banquet table.
A player from tiny Silver Grove (Ky.) High School and Oglethorpe (Ga.) University, Whitford went on to own orthopedic supply company Intermedics Associates for over 30 years. He didn’t let such conditions alter his perspective on his 1964 and ’65 seasons with the Wingfoots.
“It was a great time in my life,” Whitford said.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.